The Taken series is such a devious fantasy, it’s sometimes hard not to get caught up with them. I imagine there are any number of men, just about Liam Neeson’s age, who sit in their homes frustrated. Their ex-wives have moved on, their daughters are drifting away, the world has become a dangerous and sick place, threatened by forces they do not recognize. If only something dramatic were to happen, they could prove their quality. They’d be heroes if given the opportunity and then all the ex-wives and daughters of the world would see that the things that drove them away were actually the things that can save them. For these disheartened and discouraged men, Taken (2008) and now Taken 2 (2012) were made. It’s perhaps a good thing that they aren’t made particularly well; otherwise the streets might be full of would-be vigilante fathers tracking their families and terrorizing potential boyfriends—if the movie-going population is as empty headed as Luc Besson and Olivier Megaton, the writer and director of Taken 2, seem to think we are.
The movie picks up where the last one left off. We are at the Albanian funeral for all the sex-traffickers Bryan Mills (Neeson) killed in the previous film for kidnapping his daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace). Wouldn’t you know it, the patriarch of this sex-trade family wants revenge for the murder of his sons. This is Murad (Rade Serbedzija), who seems to have an army of relatives and hangers-on to organize another kidnapping, though this time he’s not satisfied just with Kim; he wants Bryan and even his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen), who is back in the picture, having separated from her new husband because he’s not as manly and heroic as Bryan. The family Mills take a trip to Istanbul where Murad and his crew are waiting for them. Despite Bryan’s best efforts, he and Lenore get taken and the rest of the movie involves his escape and his tutelage of Kim in the paranoid and murderous arts. Together they are able to save themselves, bring much harm to Murad and his minions and, in the biggest coup, get Kim to pass her driver’s test.
Taken 2 hits all the same beats as its predecessor but with diminished returns. It’s so painfully uninterested in its human element that we can’t help but feel the same. The contrivances that get the Millses to Turkey are so bizarre and underwritten that it defies human behavior. An example: Bryan visits Lenore to pick up Kim for her driving lesson. Lenore informs him that Kim isn’t there; she’s with her boyfriend. Bryan is stunned at the knowledge that his little girl is dating and screws his face with the resolve to find and neuter the young man. Lenore invites Bryan in for some wine. Bryan, temporarily shelving his murderous rage, accepts. Bryan intuits that something is wrong with Lenore and presses about it. Lenore reveals that she and her weenie-man, non-hero husband have separated. Bryan says, in one breath, “If there’s anything I can do … well, thanks for the wine,” and gets up to leave. Later, because the worthless, unwilling-to-kill husband has pulled the plug on a trip to China that Kim and Lenore were looking forward to, Bryan invites them to tag along on his work visit to Istanbul. From there, the movie simply operates as if Bryan and Lenore are back together and that the divorce, predicated on the fact that Bryan is, by definition, a sociopath, didn’t happen, especially since sociopathy comes in handy when you get kidnapped by other sociopaths.
Ludicrous set-up aside, Taken 2 is truly undone by its lazy writing and lazier filmmaking. These bad guys, as written by Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, go beyond the usual clichés of stupid kidnappers. Bryan will be held at gunpoint, but will be allowed to make full phone calls without even a sniff from his antagonists. He’s tied up and bound well enough, but then he’s left for hours unsupervised when it wouldn’t be difficult to put a guy with a gun in his cell. When the script tries to get clever (a masked and abducted Bryan tries to ascertain his whereabouts in the back of a van by counting the seconds between turns and noting the natural sounds around him), the direction undercuts it by giving us disjointed, unintelligible images instead of clear storytelling.
This ailment ruins all the action, as it’s impossible to tell where Bryan’s pursuers are coming from, where they might be going, or even how many there are. The whip pans, shaky camera and noncongruent editing don’t re-create the chaos of being in an actual fight; they just re-create the frustration of battling a headache. Megaton (which, believe it or not, is not the director’s given name) insists on this discombobulating style, undoing any chance of creating images or sequences that stay with the viewer. The person I saw it with astutely noticed that the action followed video game logic, where baddies could spawn out of nowhere and at anytime. And, as in a video game, this sensation severed any connection to the action being real or having any consequence.
The car chases are treated with the same disdain for coherence, presenting disconnected images of cars smashing into each other. There is a set-piece in which Bryan, responsible for the gun play, has to coach Kim, who, remember, has twice failed her driving test, to motor away from the cavalcade of assassins in pursuit. Despite the fact that it was impossible to discern anything that was going on, I enjoyed this sequence because it reminded me of learning to drive with my father, who, as in the movie, boiled his instruction down to a series of grunts of the commands “Go!” “Faster!” and “There!”
Beyond the poor writing and directing, the most unsettling element of Taken 2 was its subtle but constant reminders of the Islamic nature of the villains, which is hardly central to their particular brand of devilry but is certainly a part of the worldview of the series, which reinforces a delusion that our world and our women are under siege from foreigners and heathens and it’s up to macho men to reclaim them. Establishing shots of Istanbul were almost exclusively of the Hagia Sophia or the Blue Mosque, when neither location entered into the action. Murad’s gang all have crescent tattoos and greet each other with “Salaam alaikum” before going back to conversing in English. Though it’s never stated that the gang’s motives are religious, the subconscious message is that they are different and a threat. And even though the movie allows daughter Kim to be an actor in the daring rescue, it’s made clear that she’s totally in debt to Bryan and his he-man designs. It was further sad to see Famke Janssen, who has spent much of her career in roles of power and strength, reduced to little more than crying, bleeding or fainting.
Taken was no masterpiece, but its sequel seems to mine only its most cynical and easy elements to rush a slapped-together mess into theaters. This is the second time I’ve spent money to see one of these movies and I feel like I’m the only one who gets taken.